“Things” are spiritually neutral until we orient them either toward God or away from God
This letter was written to Jeremy Norwood, my friend and stalwart advocate for social justice.
You are I both hate it when people look down on others. We hate it when the “haves” exploit the “have nots,” when those in power abuse it, and when people in positions of influence misappropriate what’s been entrusted to them for personal gain.
I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this, but there was a long season in my life when I deeply resented wealthy people. I was prejudiced against the rich for no other reason than that they weren’t poor.
Part of my attitude came from growing up without much money, and especially from hearing stories of my mother’s childhood when she was too poor to own shoes. Part of my wealth-hate also came from reading Jesus’ many condemnations against people who had fallen in love with money (as well as his commendations for those without any). But most of my wealth-hate was sin, plain and simple. I saw that people had money and resented them for it. In my mind, they had acquired their wealth by being dishonest, or greedy, or overly focused on success, or because they had ignored their families, or prioritized the wrong things.
I had no shortage of mean fantasies about how the rich got what I did not have.
But then someone came to me, a friend who was very wealthy, and challenged me on my attitude. I didn’t know my friend had money. He didn’t flaunt it. He didn’t live in an exceptional house. He loved his family, served his church, and possessed admirable Christian character. When I realized he was wealthy I became angry, as though I had been betrayed. But my friend kept pushing me about wealth, asking me questions I didn’t have good answers for. Questions like:
Is giving an obligation or a privilege? Are we ever allowed to enjoy anything?
Is work godly? If we work, should we not be compensated fairly?
What comprises faithful stewardship? If I give everything away to the church, won’t the church then be forced to supply everything I need since I will have nothing? Who is responsible for providing for my family?
What legacy will I leave behind, so others will know I devoted my life to God?
What kind of father does God want me to be, and how will I best be able to imitate God through generosity to my children?
I realized I only knew two answers about money: You should give it all away. And God loves the poor. But God doesn’t only love the poor and, though God blesses generosity, God never demands that we destitute ourselves in some backward understanding of poverty-as-righteousness.
Here’s what I learned from my friend: wealth can be an icon, pointing people to God. My friend had been using his resources faithfully to help others, to bless others, and to prepare for a future in which others would benefit from his hard work and know God. He did things in the community that demonstrated to the world—not to the church, but to the people who were still deciding if God was worth knowing—that he was committed to the common good.
Once I realized wealth could be an icon, I realized anything could point people to God: success, fame, even power. Even sex.
Our world is full of false gods and fraudulent idols, full of people and things and occurrences that focus attention on themselves, that demand they be worshipped instead of God. But most things are spiritually neutral. The only determining factor is us. Will we live with a priestly orientation, turning everything around us into an icon? Or will we continue to let things be what they are, focused on what they want, and stand off to the side as frustrated critics?
We have to realize that frustration and critique are idols of another kind, and that our posture of impatience toward privilege distracts us from seeing the privileged as people.
We have to pray for God to soften our hearts, so we don’t make idols out of iconoclasts.